Semi-Random Thoughts: Are Modern Pens As Good As Old Ones?

(This page revised November 17, 2016)

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Stylus MagazineThis article is an updated and expanded version of one that first appeared in the April-May 2008 issue of Stylus magazine.

In the world of fountain pens, there’s not much that’s really new. Oh, we see dozens of new models, new editions, and new finishes, but beauty is only skin deep. All those new pens are based on the same ink delivery technology, with no significant innovations therein for roughly half a century. A handful of companies still produce their own nibs, feeds, and so on, but most use stock parts from sources such as Bock, JoWo, and Schmidt. Vintage pen collectors consider the Parker Premier to be just a slightly larger and heavier variation of the Parker 75, with which it shares all of its internal design. (Along the same lines, the modern Premier is a gussied-up Waterman Philéas.) So why do we not look upon the Delta Return to China LE or the Bexley Monarch or the Conklin Mark Twain as merely variations of the basic “Bock” or “JoWo” pen? It’s an interesting conundrum.

Fountain pen
Fountain pen
Fountain pen

But the purpose of this article is not to ponder imponderables. Let us see whether we can elucidate the reasons for the homogeneity of modern pens.

One major reason for today’s widespread use of common “guts” is simple economics. Most pen companies are small businesses, and they simply don’t have the capital that the grand companies of old had to invest in big research and development departments or to set up the physical plant to produce the relatively tiny quantities of nibs, feeds, and so on that they use. How tiny? Montblanc produces its Writers Series pens in “limited” editions of 20,000 or more. That’s almost certainly more pens than Bexley has made since its 1993 founding.

Fountain pen

Another reason is that we’re more fastidious today than our grandparents were half a century ago. We refuse to tolerate pens that might throw a blot if we happen to shake them a little bit. (Back in the day, people simply learned not to shake their pens.) The standardized feeds we see in modern pens are designed to resist that disagreeable tendency — even at the expense of writing reliability and ease. The result? We have pens that write dry, pens that start hard, pens that skip. And we put up with them because the alternative is to expose ourselves to — horror of horrors — the chance that we might end up as the charming but totally fabricated Waterman myth says Lewis Waterman did: losing a fat contract because his pen blotted on him at just the wrong moment.

Ink blot

Oh, but it gets better. It seems that many of the people making nibs and feeds these days don’t actually know what they’re doing. Yes, that’s a strong statement, but if you examine the nibs of a hundred brand-new modern pens chosen at random, you’ll find that all or nearly all them have their nib tines pressed tightly together. Until someone figures out a way to get around the basic law of physics that says two things can’t occupy the same space at the same time, we’ll be faced with nibs that won’t let the ink touch the paper because it can’t get between the tips of the tines. The catch is that if you look at a hundred randomly chosen vintage pens, you’ll probably see the same thing. But there’s a reason for this: vintage pens have hard rubber feeds, and over a long period of time, hard rubber will deform under pressure. As a nib presses downward on its feed, the feed yields. The nib follows along, and the nib’s tines close. When these pens were made, there was a space between the tines. Not much, maybe, but there was a space: bigger for manifold nibs, smaller for springy nibs. Modern makers seem to have forgotten this essential design requirement.

The other side of the coin is that even with tines spaced correctly, many modern nibs will not write well. Inexpensive pens tend to be toothy or even scratchy because their nibs aren’t carefully smoothed or have sharp edges where the tips were slit after welding and shaping. More expensive pens tend to be very smooth but are likely to be hard starting unless the writer presses down too firmly as with a ballpoint; this happens because the tips were overly rounded at the slit edge by being polished too much after slitting, creating a “baby bottom.” Both cheap and expensive nibs can have their tines misaligned out of the box. Shown here are silhouettes illustrating these sorts of problems:

Sharp edges
Sharp edges
Baby bottom
Baby bottom
Misaligned up and down
Misaligned slit walls

Nib quality is not the only problem that modern pens can have. Not only are feeds apparently designed to prevent blotting at all costs, but the very choice to use inexpensive moldable plastics for feeds can impose difficulties. Plastics are hydrophobic materials; they shed water (and, therefore, ink) instead of wicking it along their surfaces. Early molded plastic feeds, made before technology advanced to provide solutions to this problem, were definitely less reliable than they should have been. More recent versions produced by reputable manufacturers are plasma etched to create a surface that behaves as though it were somewhat porous (like hard rubber), and these feeds are as reliable as vintage hard rubber feeds. The word "vintage" in the preceding sentence implies that modern hard rubber feeds might also be less than ideal despite the fact that hard rubber is a nearly perfect material of which to make feeds, and in many cases this is so. Although there are many decades of history to show modern feed makers what the geometry of a good feed should be, most modern hard rubber feeds do not follow their predecessors. This divergence might be due to the aforementioned fear of blotting. Very narrow air channels, often also shallow, are the norm, and a single ink fissure seems to be thought adequate. Moreover, the layout of the airflow path is sometimes bizarre; as of this writing, Bock No 8 nibs are paired with a feed design whose remarkably shallow air channel stops about halfway along the nib body, providing no real path for air to pass along the nib from the breather hole to reach the air channel. These nib/feed assemblies frequently stop writing for people who write more than a few words at a time.

All is not lost, however. The small number of pen dealers who understand how nibs have to work and who adjust the pens they sell (the way dealers of first-tier pens did back in the day) have deservedly carved out a respectable share of the new-pen market for themselves, at least among knowledgeable buyers who want their pens to write well. Shown here tuning a client’s nib is Linda Kennedy of Indy-Pen-Dance.

Nib expert tuning a nib

At the high end, there are a very few companies that are willing to make the investment in the very highest quality nibs they can get, paying extra for nibs that come from the factory adjusted to work correctly out of the box.

And when you come to think about it, that’s what pens really should be all about. Sure, there’ll always be the buyer who is really acquiring eye candy, but you’re a serious pen user or you wouldn’t be reading this article. The squeaky wheel gets the grease, and if enough of you squeak loudly enough, the people who make the pens you love to look at but hate to write with will have to sit up and take notice.

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